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Overview

The tondo, or circular painting, enjoyed remarkable popularity in Renaissance Florence and was a specialty of Piero di Cosimo. His surviving examples of the type accommodate rich narratives within their round formats, which signify eternity, divinity, and cosmic harmony. The National Gallery’s Nativity, among the largest of Piero’s roundels, was likely intended for devotional use in a private palace or in the more public setting of a local confraternity or guildhall. Mary kneels in adoration of the infant Christ, who rests on a blue mantle, his head supported by a pillow of wheat that evokes the Eucharist. Also present to venerate the incarnate Jesus are an angel and the young John the Baptist, who clutches a reed cross and regards the Christ child with touching solemnity.

Piero’s narrative vision encompasses details sublime and mundane, from the symbolic rose and bud, rocks, and dove beside Christ to the half-ruined stable in the background with its niche of kitchen utensils. Jesus’s father, Joseph, descends the building’s wooden stairs in the cautious manner of an aged man. He is attended by angels bearing flowering branches to celebrate the Child’s birth. In the distance at left, the three Magi traverse a serene landscape whose rolling contours perfectly complement the tondo’s shape.

Provenance

Grand Duchess Maria Nicolaievna de Leuchtenberg [1819-1876], Saint Petersburg, Russia, after 1852;[1] by inheritance to her son, Nicholas de Beauharnais, duc de Leuchtenberg [1843-1891], Saint Petersburg, Russia; by inheritance to Nicholas' son, Nicholas de Beauharnais, duc de Leuchtenberg [1868-1928], Saint Petersburg, Russia; acquired by A.-B. Nordiska Kompaniet, Stockholm, by 1917, as by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio.[2] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence and Rome); sold 1937 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1938
Piero di Cosimo, Schaeffer Galleries, New York, 1938, no. 1.
Bibliography
1941
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 153-154, no. 464.
1942
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 249, repro. 168.
1945
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 61, repro.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 75, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 103.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 91, repro.
1968
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XV-XVI Century. London, 1968: 119, fig. 288.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 268, repro.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: I:371-372, II:pl. 269
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 104, no. 76, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 312, repro.
2014
Kennicott, Philip. “An Enigmatic Giant of Renaissance Art Will Get D.C. Show.” Washington Post 137, no. 232 (July 25, 2014): C1, C6, color fig.